The post-pandemic return to work conversation stands at a strange tipping point. While some offices cautiously reopen, a surge in other states is prompting a second round of closures. The back and forth makes it easy to overlook the one concern that won’t change: the toll all this uncertainty will exact on employee mental health.
How bad is it? A KRC Research poll from May shows that while employees approve of their employer’s COVID-19 response overall, 45% still fear their employer will bring them back to work before it is safe. General anxiety is high, but workers also have a specific fear: in a June safehome.org study, 64% of workers listed fear of in-office exposure to the virus as their biggest return-to-work concern.
No matter when it happens, employees stepping back into the office will be doing so after a period of immense collective stress. Whether they’re struggling with financial concerns, balancing child or elder care, or reckoning with the cultural uprising, the last few months were difficult for employee mental health.
In Part One of our series on employee mental health and return to work, we spoke with experts about the pressing concerns employers must address before reopening.
Understanding unseen stressors
Millions of Americans are lucky enough to be working from home. Yet while we may be grateful for a safe space to operate, it’s important to remember that’s not all we’re doing. As Neil Webb put it in what’s become a pandemic-era meme, “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”
We’re living through a pandemic, experiencing a cultural revolution, and trying to squeeze in work in between. Black employees are experiencing a combination of elevated stress and long-running fatigue as the nation wrestles with racial injustice and systemic racism that often plays out in the workplace. Employers must grasp that changing working conditions will be just another in the long list of stressors for employees.
“This isn’t just a work from home phase like it was before, where it was convenient and a perk. Now it’s a necessity,” Dawn Evans MS, SHRM-SCP, an HR Manager at Blue Sky Agency in Atlanta, said.
Evans conducted one-one-one meetings with all 25 BlueSky employees during their work-from-home phase.
“It really provided me a lot of insight,” Evans said. “From the outside looking in, I didn’t necessarily know everything our employees were facing. They may have health concerns themselves, they may have families with health concerns, they may just have the overwhelming fear about what’s going on.”
The events of 2020 strained mental health for nearly all Americans, Dr. Penny Levin, Ph.D., a psychologist and safety consultant in Philadelphia, said. In a March Census Bureau survey, more than one-third of respondents reported signs of clinical anxiety or depression.
“A psychological vortex is happening right now,” Levin said.
Work and life are crashing into each other, and many of our outlets for stress relief are gone.
“Employees’ mental health has been a concern while they have been home trying to balance being a parent, teacher, and employee all while having very little socialization and breaks,” Irene Little, Psy.D. a marriage and family therapist and CEO of Access Counseling Group in Frisco, Texas, said via email.
The lack of childcare, school schedules, and structure is especially difficult for working mothers. One example: in March, after the shutdown made childcare services impossible, the Lily reported women making the choice to leave their C-suite careers rather than juggle parenting at home.
“I’ve seen a lot of women struggling to care for their children while working full-time at home,” Levin said.
Working parents will face a new set of challenges, including worries about the health of children returning to childcare, summer camps, and school.
You can’t predict reopening’s impact on employee mental health
Imagine that 2020 is a stack of mounting pressures. There’s a pandemic, police violence, a cultural revolution, historic unemployment. Each employee will experience this year differently, but it’s a safe bet they’re all under stress. Will navigating an office reopening topple the stack?
First up is uncertainty. Messages from the state, local, and public health officials are confusing and often in conflict. Employees hardly know how best to react.
“In the beginning, it was really simple. Don’t go out, period. People adjusted to that,” Levin said. “I think as things are opening up, the uncertainty is causing more anxiety.”
For one thing, here’s no uniformity between states. As we spoke, Levin and I compared Pennsylvania’s “yellow” status to Illinois’ “Stage 3.” Large employers may contend with reopenings that look, and sound, different from state to state.
Rising case numbers in the South and West caused some already-open employers to step back their plans. That was the case for Dawn Evans’ Atlanta-based office. They had started a phased, distanced reopening, which she said brought relief to many employees. As case counts changed, their plan did, too.
“Cases started spiking again, so we’re now back to going into the office only as needed,” Webb explained.
It’s just one example of the stress that could accompany returning to work. Priya Jindal is a transition management consultant and the founder of Nextpat. She coaches on the challenges associated with returning to familiar places. Her recent work focused on providing information and workshops to diplomats on resilience and decision making during and after evacuation.
Jindal said via email that while returning to the workplace might feel easy and familiar, it will likely present unexpected challenges.
“Many people and businesses assume that things will simply pick back up and return to normal. Yet for many, they will find that the time away from the office may have reprioritized things in their life, that things that were irritating before are now infuriating, or that they no longer feel connected to the people that they were once close to at work,” Jindal said.
The pandemic added a risk tolerance requirement to this mix as well, Jindal said.
“Some individuals may not feel that their workplace is doing enough to keep them safe, while others will think it’s too much. Disagreements about personal safety can escalate quickly, due to their personal nature,” Jindal said.
In other words, employers will have to work hard to create a workplace that feels “safe” to all returning employees.
First, prioritize communication
In terms of mental health, some experts say a safe work environment could provide desperately-needed benefits beyond the obvious financial ones.
“There are some positives to having people return to work, as they will have some additional space and compartmentalization of their time,” Little said. “They will get more socialization with more people outside of their home and to return to a sense of normalcy.”
Employers shouldn’t overlook potential hazards, either Little said. Employers can support them — and protect the health of their company — by tending to both.
“There is much research that indicates that employees who have the support of their employer to get themselves or their family members help are more productive, more loyal and have far fewer unplanned days off from work, which greatly improves the company’s bottom line,” Little said.
Evans said that was her approach. In the early days, they hoped a vague policy would empower employees to decide what was in their best interest. Instead, a lack of guidance bred anxiety. So, they used employee input to develop a three-phase plan.
“We found that our employees’ anxiety quickly dropped because they had a roadmap of what we’re striving to do, and they could make decisions from there,” Evans said.
In terms of employer response, “We don’t know” and “We’re all figuring this out together,” are better responses than silence, Levin said.
“To the extent that employers can normalize the worries and concerns that employees have, it will help the adjustment,” Levin said.
Openness and listening will be paramount to quieting employees’ fears, as will resources and stress management tools, Levin said. For instance, studies show exercise may be as effective as psychotherapy or medication at treating the symptoms of stress-related anxiety and depression. Employer programs that emphasize physical wellness alongside mental health support ease the transition for employees as they return to work.
In our next post, we’ll dig into the workplace programs, benefits, and solutions employers can take to preserve employee mental health when returning to work.